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Sunday, February 25, 2018

1826 letter from Gansevoort Melvill to his mother

Months before treating his high school assembly to Marco Bozzaris, young Gansevoort Melville (born December 6, 1815 so not yet 11) declaimed another romance of Greek resistance in the more domestic but hardly less formal setting of a fashionable children's party. Now forgotten, the Byronic verse tale of Duke Phranza, the Regicide had recently appeared, unattributed, in the March 1826 issue of Blackwood's Magazine. Gansevoort's mother, who would host her own lavish children's party in February 1827, wanted to know all about it. Hence this letter of October 6, 1826 from Gansevoort Melvill (later Melville) to his mother, transcribed herein from the original in the Gansevoort-Lansing collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

Gansevoort's turn to perform came after various embarrassments: a tray of muffins overturned in his lap, and "Mrs. Palmer" superintended a kissing game, "Pillows and Keys," in which the kids were unwilling to participate.

When called on, as Herman's older brother reports to their mother Maria Gansevoort Melvill on October 6, 1826, Gansevoort "spoke Duke Phranza" (spelled Phransa?) and perhaps three other pieces:
"A Lady on the field of Battle and Lawrence's Elegy, and O sacred truth."
Gansevoort does not say what other children recited, if anything. William Gilman in Melville's Early Life and Redburn (page 32) assumes they must have spoken as well, and reads Gansevoort's 1826 list of titles as a kind of program describing what others performed. "O sacred truth" probably refers to Thomas Campbell's lines on the Fall of Warsaw or Battle of Warsaw. This poem appears under the heading Pleasures of Hope in the first edition of An Essay on Elocution: With Elucidatory Passages from Various Authors, edited by John Hanbury Dwyer (Cincinnati, Ohio, 1824).



Many years later Gansevoort made numerous notes from a later edition of Dwyer in his 1837 Index Rerum, as Hershel Parker details in Melville: The Making of the Poet (Northwestern University Press, 2008), pages 47-49. In the 1828 edition of Dwyer's Elocution cited by Parker, Campbell's poem beginning "Oh! sacred Truth!" is titled The Sacking of Prague.

Lawrence's Elegy may have commemorated naval hero James Lawrence, famous for his undaunted command, "Don't give up the ship." More specifically, the piece in question might have been the Elegy in Remembrance of James Lawrence, Esquire, printed in 1813 and circulated as a broadside.

via Library of Congress

ELEGY, 

IN REMEMBRANCE OF 

JAMES LAWRENCE, ESQUIRE: 

(LATE COMMANDER OF THE UNITED STATES' FRIGATE CHESAPEAKE.)


    SPIRIT of Sympathy! from Heaven descend!
A Nation weeps! Columbia mourns a friend.
Hush'd be the sound of Pleasure's thrilling lyre—
Quench'd be the flame of Passion's glowing fire;
Let shouts of victory for laurels won,
Give place to grief, for LAWRENCE, Valour's son.
To Warrior who was e'er his country's pride,
Has for that country, bravely, nobly died.
O! ne'er to man did bounteous Heaven impart
A purer spirit, a more generous heart:
And in THAT HEART did Nature sweetly blend,
The fearless Hero, and the faithful Friend.

   Low in the dust now lies that godlike form;
Cold is that hand, which in the battle-storm,
With dauntless courage held the faithful blade,
And deeds of Spartan valour there display'd.
As some fond mother who bewails her child,
And vents her grief in mournful accents wild;
So look'd Columbia's Genius when stern Death,
Relentless Tyrant, snatch'd her fav'rite's breath.

“Ah! me,” she cried, “would Heaven no longer save
“My much-lov'd Hero from the silent grave?
“Could not my prayers one little respite gain?
“Were all my tears and supplications vain?
“Must men like HIM be cropp'd in manhood's bloom,
“To fill the dreary ‘forest of the tomb?’
“Scarce had his glorious, bright career begun,
“Ere from its stellar height declin'd his sun.
“Yet long his virtues shall maintain their sway,
“And fire the Heroes of the future day.”  
   Now from the regions of Eternal Light,
To where thy soul has wing'd its joyful flight,
Witness the tears that for thy loss do flow,
Behold a nation whelm'd in silent woe:
The pearly drops which tremble in each eye,
Shall sooth thy spirit 'thron'd above the sky.

Blest Shade! Farewell! thy memory, ever dear,
Oft shall receive fair Freedom's holy tear;
In each fond heart shall live thy peerless name,
And THERE shall rise thy MONUMENTS OF FAME.
This tribute would have been deeply appreciated if young "Master Perry" were any relation to the Hero of Lake Erie, whose son and namesake Oliver Hazard Perry, Jr. was born in 1815, like Gansevoort Melville. As noted by Laurie Robertson Laurent in A Traveling Life (Chapter 1 in A Companion to Herman Melville, ed. Wyn Kelley, Wiley Blackwell, 2006), Gansevoort's parents Maria Gansevoort and Allan Melvill first met in 1813 at a ball for Oliver Hazard Perry.

The piece that Gansevoort calls "A Lady on the field of Battle" sounds very like the title of a poem by Felicia Hemans. But "Woman on the Field of Battle" first appeared over the signature "F. H." in the November 1827 issue of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Therefore nobody at Mrs. Palmer's tea party could have recited this poem in October 1826. Here's another candidate: A Lady shot on the Field of Battle by American poet Samuel Woodworth. In February 1821 a Mr. Picket recited "A Lady shot..." as part of a benefit concert for Woodworth, held at Washington Hall in New York City.


The manuscript letter transcribed below is held by The New York Public Library in the Gansevoort-Lansing collection, Manuscripts & Archives Division, Call # MssCol 1109. Melville Family Papers, Box 308: Melvill, Gansevoort 1826-1845.
New York. Oct 6th 1826

Dear Mother

I hope you are all well as we are. You wished me to tell you about my visit to Mrs. Palmer's. James Palmer told me to be there at 5 O-Clock in the afternoon, but Papa said that was too early, but at half past four James called for me and I went. The weather was very bad, I was there first. James called for all of them and they came in the following order, Livingston Rutgers, and Edward. William Rutherford, and Betsey, Thomas, also not forgetting Robin. Miss Slidell and Miss Perry and James walked in arm in arm, when we all got seated the Girls took the Sofa. Mrs. Palmer came in with a dignified mien all dressed in black as her light form bounded oer the floor. She seated herself beside the Girls, then introduced the Girls to the boys, there sits Master Gansevoort Melvill of Bleecker Street, and so on to the whole company. Then began the entertainment. Margaret showed us some drawing books when they were done with Some Muffins were handed round to us. as soon as the plate came to me The Muffins were emptied into my lap in wild disorder. I was frightened, and the company screamed. after they were fairly on the plate again I took one.

Then we played Pillows and Keys. You must kneel before the one You want to kiss you, and you must ring the Keys 3 times and if it is a boy he must kiss the one you kneel to, and if a Girl the one she kneels to must kiss her. no one would take it, Mrs Palmer took the Pillow and Keys and rung ten times, and cried come kiss me, no one would kiss her, and she said Old Maids may ring 100 times but they never get kissed. after that they handed the tea and Cake round, Master Ed Rutgers is very fond of Margaret Palmer, and the Cakes being in the shape of a heart took one, went up to her and putting his hand upon the Cake and the Cake upon his heart, cried out My Heart, after that we played Pawns danced and and sung. Mrs Palmer called on me to speak, and I spoke Duke Phranza, A Lady on the field of Battle and Lawrence's Elegy, and O sacred truth, at 9 o'clock Ann called for me the rain pouring down in torrents. I spent  a very pleasant evening there. Ann told me to tell you to come home as soon as possible. We all join in love to you Grandmama Aunt Mary and Uncle Peter and Cousins

Your Affectionate Son
Gansevoort Melvill

PS  Tell Cris that I do not forget her
--Gansevoort Melvill to Maria Melvill, October 6, 1826. Gansevoort-Lansing collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

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